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Sunday, May 15, 2005

To tell the truth

I wrote a letter to my dad.

He's the last person on the planet, so to speak, that didn't know. My mom's plan was to let him be. He's 88, a Georgia Cracker of the old school, and a man who has been through more than most in his life and borne it with immense dignity and integrity.

I would have so easily gone along with the scheme.

But he has been hoping I would come to Florida and do some work around the house. It needs doing. I want to go. But my old idea of outlasting him began to crumble three years ago, and now I'm beyond the point of no return. There was simply no way to hide who I am.

Yes, I would have so easily gone along with the scheme.

Cowardice, you see, has been my prime mover my entire life. I wasn't afraid of forest fires, or wild animals, or death by disease, or pretty much whatever has threatened me, mind you -- but of discovery and shame, yes. Don't hold your arms this way, they'll notice, they'll ridicule you. Don't stop to look at the earrings, they'll want to know why. Try to speak deeper. Spread your knees out. Go to the living room, that's where all the men are. And, of course, fear of the word "crybaby."

For fifty years and some.

Not that I fault him -- how were we, as the family I had been born into, going to survive, in the Deep South, if I showed any signs of being "different?" I was a disaster looking for a thousand places to happen.

So I hid, and hid well inside some deep place within myself -- so successfully that I trained myself to believe it. Holding back reality behind a wall in my mind became so habitual I could tell myself that I was, in fact, normal. And in this manner I could live for decades without having to face my own cowardice.

So then my inner arms became tired.

I let go the wall, and it fell on me.

Once you survive that, you're not frightened anymore. You can do anything, because you've got to make up for lost time. So I did HRT, counseling, electrolysis, voice coaching, new ID, the works. So now the me that's supposed to go to Florida and dig ditches around the house or whatever has --

-- just --

-- disappeared.

So I talked with my mom about this on the phone and she didn't like it that I wanted to write him but didn't oppose it; her best friend, a Salvation Army captain who's been very supportive (oddly enough), has told her that it was between him and me. My job to tell the truth and his to learn how to forgive.

He's at a tough age for learning new stuff, though. He'd argue he's earned the right not to have to confront anything that big and new, and I can definitely hear that side of it. But, either she's right --

-- or it's right and proper for me never to get to be me. And I'm sorry, but I'm no longer up for that.

So I wrote the letter on my fifty-sixth birthday and mailed it to her, so she could read it first and decide whether or when he should see it.

Writing the letter took six hours.

In it I take the view that I have hidden from him for five decades that I have a birth defect. I don't think it's that, I think it's a birth difference, but the distinction would escape him.

I explain that there are born gays and lesbians, one out of ten of the population, and that I'm not one of those.

That there are born intersexuals (and what they are and how they happen), one out of one to three hundred, and that I'm not one of those.

That there are born transsexuals, one out of one to ten thousand (depending on whom you ask), and what they are and how it happens (using the in utero hormonal brain differentiation theory), and that I'm one of those.

Then I remind him of a number of things that must have mystified him about my early childhood, then bring him up to date. It comes to a fair number of pages.

Then I tell him I love him. And I sign it with my own name.


Having mailed the letter, I packed for a trip to Pasadena, California for a conference, which is where I am now.

I chose to drive. I'm not ready for Homeland Security to go cross-eyed when they see the "M" that's still on my driver's license. I have heard that they "sort of" detain transwomen when they see that, and I was in no mood to miss one, two or even three flights with a scheduled presentation awaiting the outcome.

I was going 900 miles from home, with not a shred of boy gear to fall back on -- and felt really good about that.

At the gas stations, convenience stores, and restaurants it's been "ma'am" the whole way. I had no idea there were so many nice people!

For some reason the Spiro seemed to be affecting me more than it had for awhile, and I found myself going to the restroom at almost every rest stop between Eugene and Pasadena. And no one screamed, or snatched her kid away, or called her husband to come beat me up. No, I stood in lines. And it was "how are you doing, dear?" Great! And you?

At the hotel the uniformed gentlemen took me in hand and got me to my room with a kindliness and attentiveness that surpassed anything I had ever experienced in hotels. Flustered, I lost a lens somewhere from my glasses, and, bless them, they searched for and found it and brought it to me.

My room already had an occupant, which worried the uniformed gentleman, but I explained that I had a roommate, and that she had engaged the room the previous night. He found a note on the bed that was addressed to me from her, and was reassured. I gave him what I hoped was a generous tip, based on advice I had begged from the clerk.

My roommate showed up ten minutes later. When she had seen me last, I had a beard, and I had brought her up to speed, but only via e-mail. So we found we had a lot to discuss. The talk lasted an hour, and ended in a hug -- the kind you only get, if you're a girl, from your really good girl friends.

My presentation was first thing in the morning. The projector was being balky, so I called the home office and had them talk me through the problem, which of course had to do with XP -- the projector prefers 98 -- did I tell you how much I dislike Microsoft? -- and then I spent the next hour talking about my project at the Library to a room full of interested people -- really the best group I've ever had.

I could tell I was out of voice after the first 15 minutes, but all that came of that was that afterward another lady came up and offered me a cough drop!

I went to the meals and receptions, and it was during one of the chats in this setting that I had my most confirming experience to date: I was talking about my kids and a remark was made that would only make sense if I was the birth mom!


I almost got to share my birth stories, which would have been a bit much since the whole idea is to get to live more honestly...

This morning, having no more break-out sessions to attend, I determined to walk to the Huntington Museum and spend the day, then walk back. That would be two miles there, two on the grounds, two to return. Hmm. Check weather. ninety-one degrees expected. So I took a water bottle and an umbrella. The clothes I had brought would be a bit warm for this, but you can't have everything. I was wearing a black jumper with a silver-and-amber butterfly pin, and white blouse, carrying a black bag and walking in black kayaker's deck shoes. My earrings were the silver leaves given me by a dear friend. I felt that I looked sharp, and this was confirmed by the reactions of passersby all day. People actually like me. On sight. Strangers like me! Guys hold doors and smile. Young and old ladies alike sit down on benches with me and chat.

I set out at nine in the morning and even then I could feel that I would need to keep to the shady sides of streets. I didn't have much of a map with me but I still have a treeplanter's sense of direction and found my way to, and across, the campus of Caltech. After awhile the color of the street signs changed from green to blue, informing me I had reached San Marino. I came to the entrance to the Huntington complex, which was a beehive of intense activity. It turned out the annual Member's Plant Sale was in progress.

I got directions from a lot attendant and attached myself to a tour headed for the gardens. This place is enormous, and I knew I would have to be selective, so I abandoned the tour after the Rose Garden and chose first the Herb Garden with its brick walks. I enjoyed talking with the volunteer there, who was building tussie-mussie bouquets. Next I went down to the Japanese Garden, which is both the largest and the best I have ever seen.

The day had grown blisteringly hot by this time, so I worked my way back up to the galleries. First I went to the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery which houses American works; I saw a lot of things there that I liked, but the breakfast scene by Mary Cassatt was my personal favorite, and I will admit that it brought me to tears. Reproductions never do Cassatt justice. You have to be there. Suddenly I really missed Beloved, who is a great Cassatt fan.

From here I crossed over to a gallery hosting the last day of a comprehensive exhibit of British Watercolors. Of these, two studies by Gainsborough caught my attention.

Next, I visited the grand old mansion with its collection, including the stars of the Huntington, the Gainsborough Blue Boy and Lawrence's stunning Pinkie. I remarked to the young lady guarding the room that it was great to see the Blue Boy and all that, but frankly I preferred Gainsborough's watercolor studies in the other exhibit. She replied that she really liked the watercolors too.

Overcome by all that I had seen, I walked to a shaded fountain outside and called Beloved in Eugene, on the cell phone. She agreed it was sad she wasn't there with me, and told me that my mom had called -- "she sounded kind of upset."


I lay down in the grass, looking up into the "blue vault of the heav'ns" and dialed my mom's number. She picked up immediately.

"Hey there," I said. "Something up?"

"Well, dear, it's your daddy. I don't have good news for you."

"Have I lost my dad?" Thoughts of heart attack, stroke, embolism.

"Well, sort of. He's the most upset I've ever seen him."

"Oh." Relief. Is that all? "So you showed him the letter?"

"Yes, though, mind you, I don't think he's actually read it. He has said the most ugly, ugly things about you all day."

"Well, that would be about what we should expect at this point. Girl, you know he'll be that way for weeks -- and I predict -- he'll chase you off to go shopping at some point and his curiosity will get the better of him and he'll look it over. He's a sucker for science, just like me. That was the best letter I could send him, and it's all verifiable stuff."

"I know that, it's just -- he can be so poisonous. And of course it's all my fault, and the blood of my family, and..."

"Well, now, I remember he told you once you ought to leave him because everybody in his family was crazy. I'd be just more proof of that along with his whole crowd!"

"That's true enough."

"So you could tell him that."

"I just might."

"So are you gonna come see me, then?"

"Yes, I am!"

"And don't worry about the old man, I was gonna be a shock to him from the time I was six, I just kept putting it off to try and outlive him."

"I told him that. I said, 'that child has never really lived, and it was all for you.'"

"Well, no need to try to make him feel guilty."

"Listen, the way he was ranting about you, I would try anything I could get my hands on. I mean, it was ugly, ugly things."

"Well, let's just figure out how to get you out here. I bet with some time alone he'll start thinking through things a little bit."

"Well, I hope so -- Risa."

"Love ya."

"Love you too."

I switched off the phone, rolled over and wept into the grass.


After awhile, I pulled myself together, got out my compact, cleaned up my face, and set out for the gallery I had been saving for last, because, for me, best. Here some of the treasures of the library are on view in rotating exhibition, under low-light conditions. I saw a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare Quartos, a 1611 Faerie Queene, and many, many wonderful things, as well as a fine exhibit of original texts from the life, work, and influence of Isaac Newton.

It was now four in the afternoon, and I judged the shadows long enough for me to safely negotiate the two miles of shimmering heat haze between me and the hotel.

I kept to residential streets, with the deepest shade, and saw more of the Caltech campus and also the observatory buildings of Pasadena City College.

I came upon two old men, one washing the sidewalk in front of a barbershop, the other watching, smoking a cigar. Interestingly enough, I had seen thousands of people all day and here was the first smoker. Has Pasadena all but given up tobacco?

He held the cigar behind him, snaggled a smile, and said, "hello there, young lady."

Cute. "And to which of my three beautiful granddaughters were you speaking, sir?" Which cracked up his buddy.

Upon my arrival at my room, footsore, sweaty, and a bit sunburned, I went straight to the tub for a bath, then changed into the least hot thing I had on hand -- a short-sleeved blue denim knee-length dress with a thin denim sash -- and changed my silver leaves for hoops, and went out to eat at the pizza place down the block. I'm not sure what they fed me -- looked like onion rings from baby onions with sweet and sour honey sauce -- but I enjoyed it, and the waitresses were so nice -- and then I went for one more turn around the block before returning to the hotel.

Here, I found the All Saints Episcopal/Anglican Church doors wide open, with a sign saying "open for prayers until eight every day."

I remembered that the Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta, the one that had survived the great fire during the Civil War, had a similar tradition, and I used to come in from the bright Georgia sun and sit on the cool pews.

I went inside.

Someone, a very talented someone, was practicing on the organ for the morrow's services. I moved through the vestibule area into the sanctuary, and made my way down the flagstones to the fourth pew, center right. I know the routine, having gone to an Episcopal school. I curtseyed toward the altar, sat down for a bit, placing my purse on the dark, polished wooden seat beside me. On impulse I turned down the kneeler and knelt on it, assuming the attitude, and, surprising myself, the essence, of prayer.

The organist played on.

-- risa b.


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